Christianity as We Know It: It’s Had a Good Run, But…

Over at GospelFutures, Neil WIlliams has a post that asks the question “What Good is Christianity?”

His point is basically this: Christianity is in trouble. Why? (1) The intellectual challenges are serious and are too often not answered credibly, and (2) the church has a long track record of winding up in the wrong side of moral issues.

I my experience, what Neil puts his finger on here has been a common lament of younger Christians, or former-Christians, raised in fairly traditional Christians homes but where the system of faith delivered to them no longer has explanatory power in the world they inhabit. New paradigms are needed.

I strongly support Williams’s efforts to bring to the surface these sorts of issues and deal with them honestly. Gatekeepers will likely not be happy, but then again, are they ever?

Williams blogs as GospelFutures, has a D.Th.form the  University of South Africa, and is the author of The Maleness of Jesus: Is It Good News for Women?). His new book project,  Chasing the Wind: The Quest for Relational Transformation, addresses the concerns raised above.

  • Derek Rishmawy

    I went over to the site: I’m not gonna lie, I’m not impressed. I mean, the book looks like a worthy project and the author is probably quite capable of writing a good book worth reading. What I mean is that right now I’m knee-deep in New Atheist literature as well as their rebuttals and I’m not thoroughly freaked out. There are actually good answers out there to most of this stuff he’s talking about. So, whenever I hear of titles like “Why Christianity Must Change Or Die” by Spong, or “The Sky is Falling” prognostications about the intellectual un-sustainability of Christianity as we know it, I just go back to all the other eras where nearly the same dire claims were being made and then we made a comeback in the face of the opposition. (Like the first few centuries when the Church first emerged, or more recently, the 18th century, the 19th century, the 20th century) I’m not saying good answers shouldn’t be researched, and some paradigm-re-tooling isn’t necessary. I’m must saying the whole, “unless it all changes now by everybody reading my answers” approach to marketing is tired and, in a lot of ways, unhelpful.

    • John

      How do you respond to the charge that Jesus and Paul were wrong about the end of the world? For my money, that’s the most difficult intellectual challenge to Christianity and I wouldn’t be surprised if it continues to get raised more ardently by skeptics.

    • John
  • Jeff

    “a common lament of younger Christians, or former-Christians, raised in fairly traditional Christians homes but where the system of faith delivered to them no longer has explanatory power in the world they inhabit. New paradigms are needed.” – This is very true, imo. I think his approaching ‘nihilism’ is perhaps too far. But, I would not say “Christianity is in trouble” – but perhaps the parody of it in the latter half of the 20th century is. Christ as King is not in trouble. He will reign and is in control. The challenge is for us to conform ourselves to Him within the framework of this generation (as, for example, Paul in Athens) – yet, not all accepted Paul’s message (there will be some rejection regardless of how well it is framed). Yet, one reason I think the “system of faith delivered… no longer has explanatory power” (A great phrase, btw) is that it is often entrenched in a culture and framed by a culture (of the past; of religious heritage) that simply chooses not to engage and interact in a healthy way (or in “any way” for that matter). However, I do think we have to step back and ask, “Is this just a snippet, a blip – as there were many in the 1st century movement – that for varying reasons will be overcome or is it something much deeper, more systemic?” The great danger with Christian faith is that it becomes settled and cannot adjust to changing culture (as Paul did in Acts 17 and Acts 13 and elsewhere).

  • Brad

    “The church has a long track record of winding up in the wrong side of moral issues.” Is this really true of the catholic church, East-Roman-Protestant? Given the number of moral issues addressed over the last two millennia, I’d like to see this assertion proven. I’m skeptical–my guess is that this comment is directed more toward Protestant Fundamentalism than the church at large.

  • Matteo

    And how can the “church” be defined then when Protestants and Catholics and Orthodox all make the claim to be it? I don’t think Christianity can be much associated with Jesus and he seems to be king without a kingdom at times. Then again his is not of this world. For myself I have found the new paradigm in the “old wine” of spirituality associated with the Catholic/Orthodox monastic orders. I’ve flirted with the Protestant mindset and have found myself let down by it (though I don’t see the catholic traditions satisfying either). Being in the world and not of is my plan minus the supernatural theism, dualism, and Platonism that has seemed to infect “the body”. The challenge for me is to go beyond doctrine and dogma and approach my life in Christ in a more pragmatic way.

    • Theophilus

      The Church is not bound by the walls of any religion, organization, denomination, theology, or philosophy created by men and women, rather than God. The Church must be defined as those who keep His commandments; its religion is to visit the widow and orphan in their affliction and to keep itself unstained from the world. This means that, regardless of the will and traditions of Man, the Church will be found in all denominations and traditions that do not require disobedience to God as part of membership obligations. For this reason the Mormons cannot be called Christian–and I will not go into all the reasons here; one merely has to read what they’ve written with more than superficial interest to understand this. It is also for this reason that many who call themselves shepherds are not and many who call themselves leaders of the faith are not. The Church is too concerned with carrying out the Master’s will to play “church”. Look at the Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox branches–strip them of the traditions of men and remove from them the servants of Satan and those who are cold or lukewarm at best; that which is left would be the Church (at least a good portion of it). Any other divisions not derived directly from Scripture are of men–not God, and must, therefore, be rejected.

      Please read what I say carefully without reading meaning beyond what I’ve said. When I say traditions of men, I do not mean that all traditions are inherently wrong–only those drawn from the mind and heart of corrupted Man. If you compare “our” traditions with Scripture, the differences are striking. And don’t label me–labels are way too narrow- and small-minded.

  • PJ Anderson

    I disagree on both issues.

    Many if the so-called intellectual objections to Christianity have been answered thoroughly and competently. Often when folks say that these questions haven’t been answered it is because they simply don’t like the answers. To spin the question on its own head, I’d challenge that many of the so-called intellectual questions aren’t intellectual and they represent a small challenge in light of the questions completely answered questions across the intellectual history of the world.

    The second point is really historically myopic isn’t it? I mean one can say contemporary Christianity is on the wrong side of a couple issues, but I don’t believe that completely. Christianity has a robust historical record of challenging the status quo and arriving at the biblical moral position which is the better solution. Slavery in the British empire? Rights of women in ancient Rome? Sexual fidelity? Justice for underclass? Just because the author can’t see beyond a minor set of cultural quagmires I don’t buy his arguments.

    I’ve read some of his stuff and don’t find him at all credible nor thoughtful. He’s just recapitulating the same self-loathing nonsense we’ve been subjected to in evangelicalism for the sat five decades. It’s not well thought out either. Just my take.

    • Nan Bush

      “A minor set of cultural quagmires”??? Minor quagmires like justice for the underclass? The status of women?
      Dear heaven.

  • James

    Frankly, I’m not inspired to support the project. I didn’t find anything gripping in the promotion as to how Jesus could transform relations that are in such dire straits. If you’re going to paint a very black picture by way of introduction, you need to give some good hints as to how it will improve by reading the rest of the book. We all know the answer is Jesus.

  • Keith Johnston

    I think that when the Apostle Paul wrote the first letter to the Corinthians, he probably was thinking “Christianity as We Know It: It’s Had a Good Run, But…” (if you look at the history of the Christian church, it is like watching a drunken man walk down a hallway, first bouncing off one wall and then bouncing off the wall on the other side, falling down and then getting up — it’s too bad God only has human beings to work with; the history of the Christian church and the history of Christian theology is moving from one crisis to another, moving from one intellectual or moral challenge to another — what should that be different in this generation?)

  • Matteo

    Keith I think Christianity failed before it got started. Paul and the other disciples in my opinion failed to live up to Jesus’ vision. I daresay too that Jesus failed to clarify what he expects from in a practical way. If he were clear then there would not be four (or more) gospels. I know that seems like a blasphemous statement but I think God (as seen by traditional Christianity) is a pretty bad communicator. Which is why I do not subscribe to theism. God for me simply is. If I want to know God’s character I can look at the portraits of Jesus painted. This is still incomplete though. I follow Jesus because it’s a common sense approach to living, not because I believe a set of propositions written by well intended but limited people with a medieval mindset, or by first century Jews living under Roman oppression who wanted the world to end so they could feel free, or by Bronze Age Israelites.

  • Theophilus

    I read a lot of chatter here from intellectuals who want to look down on Christianity but offer no real solutions apart from going with the flow and abandoning ship. If you keep going, you may as well not call yourselves Christians because, in the end, how are you any different from the world? Why claim part of something you don’t believe in? Why pretend to participate in something you feel has little actual relevance? Either figure out where you parted ways with God or go. I hope you will really think about what I’m saying, and I hope you will figure it out. But God doesn’t want or value the lukewarm, and Christianity certainly doesn’t need you. Has He not said that He would rather you be hot or cold? If you think of church as a social club and the Bible as a nice set of stories, then you may as well join arms with the Mormons and sing songs because if you don’t wake up soon, it’s going to be too late for you and Christianity in America. You cannot live a relevant Christian walk by going about it half-heartedly. It’s time to man-up. Walk the walk and talk the talk. The problem with “Christianity,” as that term is defined apparently by several of you, occurs when people don’t walk the walk and label/negate those who do. Do you not understand that Satan’s servants are in the church–more and more everyday by the looks of it, and that this is why the church has stumbled and failed repeatedly in the most colossal ways. But, hey, if you think it helps to stand around and grumble, please go on by all means. But if you really want to make a difference then figure out what the Bible actually tells you about life and do what you should do. As it is you risk missing the amazing things that God is right now doing and about to do because you are too busy with other things. Please, wake up.

  • JM

    As someone who lost his faith a fair time ago, but is still deeply fascinated by the evolution of religions and how they change over time, I’d like to offer a minor suggestion as to why religions inevitably collapse, and a suggestion about what can be done about it.

    My basic thoughts on the subject are that religions go through three/four stages. In the first stage, the religion (say, Christianity, for this example) follows its core principles (e.g. Love thy neighbor, Love God). The religion is liberal, and large numbers of ideas coexist. This can be likened to the colonisation of a new environment by a species.

    In stage two, the religion becomes stratified and organised. The majority of sects die out, and the system selects for sects with rules that support the sect, not necessarily those that are closest to the core values (an example of this could be seen as the heavy focus in catholism on the Eucharist, though I’m not sure. It’s not found in original teachings, apart from as an obvious metaphor, and it is used to draw people to church.) A certain amount of suppression of other viewpoints happens because of this focus, whether from society or law.

    Stage three is the point at which a religion begins to collapse. It’s extremely tricky to say why, but the reason is likely to be because of the lack of the original values (lost in stage two) and the loss of suppression of other viewpoints. People do not convert from the outside, as the loss of the good core ideas which caused loads of people to convert in stage one means that there is not a strong incentive.
    Equally, people don’t remain in the religion, as there is now less pressure to do so. So the religion begins to die…

    These stages can be seen, unsurprisingly, in all of the Abramic religions. Islam in countries such as Iran and large sections of the middle east is at stage two, Christianity in most of the world is at stage three.

    What happens at stage three is difficult, but normally in response a wave of fundamentalism appears, which attempts to restore the recently lost pressure against leaving the religion. It’s not clear if this works or not (there simply aren’t enough examples of religions that reach this stage without being wiped out by other religions), but it is probably a bad thing (a return to middle ages Christianity wouldn’t be a great move)

    Instead of this, it’s probably a good idea to try and go back to stage one, focus on the original message (not the whole bible, just the essentials) and to try and attract people again with the slightly hippyish loving thy neighbor and god beginning that Christianity had.

    Anyway, I appologise if it seems preachy, just one of the areas I majorly geek out over. I love the site, by the way, full of intelligent discussions!

  • Matteo

    Theophilus I appreciate your comment. For myself I am only interested with God though I think I can assume that our notion of God differs. For me I can’t take most of the bible literally when statements of faith are made by the writers of the NT when in my opinion they almost virtually ignore the ethics of Jesus. Not the mention the “church” does too 2000 years later. It is in my opinion on the most part full of hypocrisy and legalism, which is why I choose the path of the mystics within the Christian story. Being in the world and not of it is hard as you probably know but I won’t allow the church to get away from its part in creating that world. I’m not a theist as I mentioned but if I were to put that hat back on I have to accuse God of more harm than good. But since I don’t wear that hat I won’t go there. God for me simply is. I bask in that Mystery which is the source of my faith and hope that all is good no matter what seems to be the appearance of it not being good. What I struggle with is learning the patience to be in community with fundamentalists and biblical literalist and cultural conservatives who justify their hatred by self- righteousness wire doctrines and dogmas and propositions. If I were a theist I still wouldn’t give Satan a thought as all my attention would be and is on God. I don’t fear Satan like Paul says I should. I only fear God because he is the only one who could destroy my soul. Please note my language here is symbolic and metaphorical and not literal.

  • Craig Vick

    The flip side of the intellectual arrogance which seeks apodictic certainty is severe discouragement (all is lost) when what we think we know is challenged. The root problem isn’t Christianity but intellectual arrogance. As far as Christianity ending up on the wrong side of issues, it seems to me it would be more accurate to say that it ends up on all sides of many historically important moral issues.

  • Rebecca Trotter

    I have to tell y’all – a couple of years ago, I decided to leave arguing behind. I stopped trying to convince people to change their minds. Instead, I decided to just make a positive case for my growing understanding of the faith. I no longer argued over why women are not called to be uniquely subordinate or why evolution is true and not a threat to biblical faith much less over whether that was wine or grape juice Jesus made at the wedding. And I just starting thinking through what a faith that is open to what God’s creation is telling us looks like. And what a theology not based on a literal understanding of Genesis but still faithful would look like. And how to talk about and understand sin in a world where infants are no longer held up as examples of what it means to be born into sin. What to do with all those tough bible verses. I just detached from the debates and arguments and set about exploring new ideas about orthodox beliefs. It’s been very interesting, fruitful and frankly fun.

    I think we’re in an in-between time. I’m so encouraged to see more challenging voices being taken more seriously than was the case even 4 or 5 years ago. We’re moving forward, but that also means we’re shedding some of the excess baggage we’ve picked up on the way. There are good things coming. New understandings that we’ll be able to pass on to future generations that will point the way forward. Jesus said that the gates of hades will not prevail against his ecclesia. He himself suffered complete defeat – death – and was resurrected. The church is in that process of death and ressurection as well, imo. I predict that in a few hundred years people will look back at this time and think, “what an amazing time that must have been to be alive for!”